DiaBlogue: Sam Harris Deist? Eerie.

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Dear Alan,
I was very glad to see your “bonus” post on The Myth of Secular Moral Chaos. While I clearly failed to Score One for Deism with my attempt at Rationally Analyzing Virtue, I’ve been having a hard time deciding whether you truly disagreed with/refuted my position or if I just hadn’t done an adequate job of explaining/defending it.
Once again, I congratulate you on finding an outside source that does an excellent job of illuminating the issues at hand. Ironically, the position outlined by Sam Harris:
But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being?and why wouldn’t there be??then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world. This is an objective claim about the human mind, the dynamics of social relations, and the moral order of our world.
is very close the one I was trying to articulate!
[Read more] to see how the existence of “psychophysical laws” relates to my conception of deism…

As usual, let me summarize Sam’s [if you’ll forgive my use of his first name] “nontheistic objective basis for morality” (NTOBM) as a series of bulleted assertions:
I. There are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being
II. These laws are potentially discoverable [by human beings]
III. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality
IV. Love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world
The more I meditate on his NTOBM, the more impressed I am by Sam’s ability to concisely summarize the essential basis for a scientific research project:
I. Laws exist (ontology)
II. We can discover them (epistemology)
III. We should discover them (motivation)
IV. We can tell if we’ve discovered them correctly (metric)
The thing is, while I actually accept these premises — and I trust you do too — I suspect I understand them quite differently than you do. In particular, I believe that:
a. All four are independent (you can’t derive any from the others)
b. All four are necessary (you need all four shared beliefs to pursue this project)
c. All four are controversial (there exist communities that deny each of them)
d. Together, they constitute a paradigm for rational inquiry
e. Thus, by definition, they are prior to (and unjustified by) that paradigm
f. All four could be deduced as theorems from my definition of deism
That is, I am making the claim (which I can justify in a future post, if you like) that the NTOBM can be derived from:
5. The present System exists as the result of a benevolent Purpose
Where “benevolent” can be defined as “sympathetic to human Reason, Virtue, and Happiness.”
Now, here’s the funny part. I suspect Sam (and I hope you) would at least agree with (a-e) — and if not, I’d be very curious why. Further, even if you concede (f), that doesn’t take away from Sam’s accomplishment (after all, he wasn’t promising an NDOBM :-). Plus, I completely agree with you that (5) is also pre-paradigmatic, and thus itself unjustified.
So, if there’s no real difference or disagreement, then what’s the point?
Well, two points. The first is that I explicitly admit that (5) is an unjustified, foundational, non-contingent, arational belief. It is motivated by empirical and rational considerations, but is not itself susceptible to rational proof, disproof, or derivation. It is, in fact, what might fairly be characterized as a “religious” belief.
But, here’s the thing: so is Sam’s NTOBM! Those statements are just as non-contingent and arational as mine are, and thus if you consider my belief “religious” then those are too. No? If not, why not?
The second point is that I consider (5) a more powerful assumption, in that it turns the NTOBM into a series of rational statements that can be meaningfully investigated. True, your argument about “brute facts” is still valid, in that there is no “a priori” reason that the more powerful assumption is necessarily the “better” one. But, I am not arguing “a priori”; the first goalpost I am addressing is in the context of “scientific inquiry:”
I. Belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry.
And, if memory serves, science thrives on the discovery of underlying principles that can explain a wide range of diverse phenomena. In fact, I would even argue that my deistic assumption (5) is powerful enough to also explain the “transcendent mathematical nature of the universe!”
Of course, that’s a lot of assertions on my part without detailed proof. However, I hope this captures enough common ground that you can easily identify which assertions are worth exploring in greater depth. Until then, I remain
Yours truly,
— Ernie P.
P.S. This week’s bad title pun is on “Dies Irae.”
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